It's not just the voting machines -- it's how we count them, too

A new report documents the faulty methods most states use to make sure that electronic voting machines produce correct vote counts.

Published August 1, 2007 3:54PM (EDT)

We've seen, this week, yet another report on the security flaws in electronic voting systems (University of California scientists found machines produced by the nation's largest voting-machine vendors acutely hackable). Now comes something else to worry about in the business of elections: We're not counting the votes well either.

That's the conclusion of researchers at the NYU and U.C. Berkeley law schools. Thirty-eight states, they say in a new report, require voting machines to produce "voter-verifiable paper records." But few states do much of anything to examine these paper records after an election, and none -- zero -- use procedures designed to discover evidence of election-tampering in these records.

Touch-screen voting machines had long been criticized because they store their vote counts internally, unverifiable by any human. But lately many have been retrofitted with paper printers that show a voter's selection just before she casts her ballot. The voter is supposed to make sure that the print-out -- the voter-verifiable paper record -- reflects her choices. Ideally, election officials would later examine these print-outs as part of what's known as a post-election "audit" -- a statistical survey of paper records designed gauge the integrity of the election.

But here's where the problems comes in. Of the 38 states that require paper records, 23 do not require officials to conduct any sort of audit of the records; the paper records essentially sit untouched, useless, after a race. Of the few states that do require post-election audits, "none has adopted audit models that will maximize the likelihood of finding clever and targeted software-based attacks, non-systemic programming errors, and software bugs that could change the outcome of an election," the researchers say.

This is a serious issue, they add, because there have been instances in every state "where machine malfunctions have changed vote tallies." Only rigorous post-election studies can catch these malfunctions -- but few officials are conducting such audits.

See the report -- from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law -- in PDF form here.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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2008 Elections